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Summoning The Improbable: An Elegy To Sean Dyche And Brexit Ball

The Premier League is a division full of characters, but in the modern age of television and media, it is usually players and managers from bigger clubs who attract attention. 

That is why it's so impressive that Sean Dyche, a manager for a small-time, relegation-threatened club like Burnley has become something of a press conference darling.

Nicknamed the "Ginger Mourinho," the former Burnley manager is a cross between strict schoolmaster, cool uncle and tough guy from the local pub, and overall an unlikely candidate for such a defining nickname. 

Dyche had the gravelly voice of an uncle who quit smoking more times than he could count ("I smoke exhaust pipes and I have gravel for breakfast," was his explanation, which was only slightly less believable than the stories of him eating worms at training).

His shaved head and working-class accent fit the classic stereotype of the results-oriented-but-tactically-unastute English manager who preferred simple, hard-nosed, no-nonsense football (aka Brexit Ball). In short, a hard man. On the pitch, his 4-4-2 formation and direct play perpetuated this image.

But the former center back had a nuanced approach to the game that maximized his seemingly underqualified squad.

"We discuss everything but ultimately we pick our best team," Ian Woan, Dyche's right-hand man at Burnley, explained. "And our stats tell us that 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 is where we are at our most productive."

As for the club's style of play? "If we have more than 300 passes, then we aren’t productive," Woan asserts.

While Burnley's approach is described as straightforward, the Clarets are a team that understands and carries out the vision of its manager; a team with a coherent style of play that, when brought together, is greater than the sum of its parts.

"On the pitch, it is the simplicity," Woan said. "Every player on the pitch knows their role. We don’t come away from our core values, doing the basics and being at maximum fitness and maximum effort. There’s more to it nowadays, but our core values stay strong. They are non-negotiable."

Given the choice, Dyche probably would prefer to play attractive attacking football. But Burnley does not have the funding necessary to purchase such talented players.

The Clarets have spent $217 million during their seven EPL seasons under Dyche. By comparison, newly-promoted Fulham spent $128 million in 2018-19, and Aston Villa, which earned promotion in 2019, spent $175 million during the the ensuing campaign. Neither rank among the biggest spenders in the EPL of the last decade.

Still, Dyche made do by playing to his team's strengths; size, physicality and aerial ability. Players with these attributes are easy to find in the British Isles, in the land of men with large heads and sturdy legs.

He built a squad composed of lower-level talent — plucking numerous players from Derby County and Leeds United and sifting through the remnants of the long-ball Stoke City sides, poaching six players from the struggling Potters during his tenure.

Dyche has consistently outperformed the club's spending at a level rarely seen in the Premier League, ranking near the bottom in all financial categories but consistently ensuring safety.

Burnley EPL Performance Relative

to Spending Under Sean Dyche

Season Squad Value  Wages Transfer Spend Finish
14-15 20th 20th 19th 19th
16-17 20th 19th 15th 16th
17-18 15th 18th 19th 7th
18-19 17th 13th 17th 15th
19-20 18th 13th 17th 10th
20-21 20th 17th 20th 17th
21-22 19th 16th 15th ?

When Dyche joined Burnley in October 2012, the Clarets were a lower-table Championship side that had enjoyed just one top-flight campaign in the previous 35 seasons. Within 20 months, Dyche led the club back to the Premier League, where it would stay for all but one year of his tenure. He also guided them to an unprecedented Europa League appearance following a seventh-place finish in 2017-18.

Dyche developed England internationals like Kieran Trippier, Danny Ings, Michael Keane, James Tarkowski and Nick Pope — all of whom came from the Football League or the reserve side of a Premier League club. The quintet was purchased for less than $10 million in total.

Funding became especially tight at the club over the last few seasons. Since the start of the 2019-20 campaign, no Premier League team (that has been in the division all three seasons) has spent less and only Chelsea and Leicester have brought in fewer players permanently. 

In the run-up to this season, questions were fielded both about the finances of the club and Dyche's future at the helm. The latter was answered (or so it seemed) when the Ginger Mourinho was given a four-year deal at the beginning of the season. The club also spent $50 million between the two transfer windows (a figure aided by the $30 million sale of striker Chris Wood), a team record that seemingly answered funding-related concerns.

Yet once again, Dyche was given a difficult job, as he was tasked with ensuring the Premier League survival of an experienced (oldest average age in the EPL) but underqualified (second-lowest squad value) team. Another run-in with the relegation zone was expected, but the club started the season with a nine-match winless stretch and has won just four times in 31 EPL matches. 

Then came the unexpected — after a 2-0 defeat to last-place Norwich, Dyche was unceremoniously fired. Just four days earlier, he led the club to a crucial 3-2 win against fellow relegation adversary Everton, but now Burnley sat in 18th, five points from safety. The Sean Dyche era was over.

For the future, was Dyche the best choice to manage Burnley? Maybe not. Reports from inside the club said the team environment had gotten "stale," the result of a long period with minimal change.

A squad can only go through so many relegation battles before it becomes tiring. The club has been treading water for the better part of a decade, avoiding the drop but rarely doing so comfortably. 

But is there a better man to lead the Clarets to Premier League safety in the last month of the year? Highly unlikely. Dyche's entire career has been one whole relegation fight, and he has consistently come out on top. Why doubt him now? 

Burnley has earned four points in two matches since Dyche's departure, providing a big boost to the club's survival hopes. If the club stays up, it will face another set of daunting odds next year. In the event of relegation, you get the feeling this club won't be coming back up any time soon.

Regardless of how the season concludes, the achievements of the Ginger Mourinho should not be forgotten.

I could wax poetically about Burnley's direct, physical style of play — archaic tactics rarely seen in the game anymore. We could reminisce about the upsets over top sides and the brief foray into Europe. We could admire the remarkable consistency of the Burnley starting XI from year to year or the ability to develop Football League players into English internationals.

But perhaps Andy Jones of the Athletic summarized Dyche's feats best when he said: "Teams may be easier on the eye than Burnley, but what they have is a manager who makes sure they win enough matches to achieve their goals. At the end of the day, is that not the job you want your manager to do?"

Dyche has done everything the club has needed of him and more. He's not the Burnley manager anymore, but this is still his Burnley team. And it will be his Burnley team a week, a year, maybe even a decade from now because of the work he has put in, first leading the club into the Premier League and then instilling the confidence and fighting spirit necessary to survive.

Burnley is an anomaly in the modern game, and eventually, all overachievers like the Clarets have a downfall. Sean Dyche might not be physically leading the club, but he has spent his entire career preparing the team for moments like this, and I'd like to think that every hard-fought Burnley win still brings a smile to his face.

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